Under Pressure: Roberto Luongo

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“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the Vancouver Canucks, we pick…goalie Roberto Luongo.

Full disclosure: we were going to pick Ryan Kesler for this, because 1) there’s quite a bit of pressure on Kesler to return to form, and 2) everyone’s kind of sick of the Canucks’ goaltending saga.

But we just couldn’t do it — nobody’s under more pressure this season in Vancouver than Luongo, for these reasons:

1) His reputation is on the line. Earlier this month, he said his goal is to “get back to where I was two years ago and re-establish myself as one of the best in the league.” Luongo finished the 2013 season with a .907 save percentage, his lowest mark since his rookie season with the Islanders.

2) There’s no legitimate Plan B for the Canucks. Vancouver’s backup is probably going to be Eddie Lack, a 25-year-old who’s yet to make his NHL debut and is coming off hip surgery. Which is to say, Lack is no Cory Schneider. Not yet anyway. If Luongo isn’t good, the Canucks could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

3) The Olympics. Luongo wants to play for Team Canada again. “This is a big year for me,” he said. “I have been sitting on the bench for a while and I want to show everybody what I can do. We all know it’s an Olympic year so I just want to make the best of it.”

On top of all that, Luongo’s long-term future in Vancouver is far from clear, even though the 34-year-old is signed through 2021-22. Remember, the Canucks still have one of their compliance buyouts remaining. And while ownership was obviously loathe to use it this past summer, if Luongo struggles badly this season, the pressure from fans (a.k.a. customers) to use it next June will be immense. Vancouver hockey fans pay some of the highest ticket prices in the NHL. In return, they expect ownership to use its deep pockets to put the best team possible on the ice.

But that debate can wait for later, if necessary. (We don’t even want to get into the whole “Luongo might not actually mind getting bought out” angle.)

Luongo, by the way, didn’t get off to the best start in the preseason; on Wednesday, he allowed four goals in the first 12:24 versus the Oilers, including this stinker:

For all of our Under Pressure series, click here.

Some big decisions looming for Colorado in goal

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So, here’s what we know about the Avs’ current netminding situation:

• Veteran goalie coach Francois Allaire was dismissed yesterday, after four years on the job. The 57-year-old is perhaps best remembered in Colorado for his work with Semyon Varlamov in ’13-14, when Varlamov backstopped the Avs to the Central Division title, finishing second in Vezina and fourth in Hart Trophy voting.

• Two names have already been tied to the vacant head coaching gig: Dwayne Roloson (per the Star Tribune) and Finnish goalie guru Jussi Parkilla (per Sportsnet). Roloson, the longtime NHL netminder, spent a few years working as a goalie consultant for the Ducks. Parkilla, 40, has worked in a number of different European leagues, including the KHL and Finland’s SM-liiga.

• Per In Goal Magazine, Roloson’s connection to the Avs gig could be predicated on it being a part-time job. This would be different from Allaire, who worked in a full-time capacity, and may go back to the club’s previous model, when Kirk McLean worked as a “consultant.”

• Last month, BSN Denver reported the Avs had already decided to protect Varlamov over Calvin Pickard for the upcoming expansion draft. But that was before Pickard backstopped Canada to silver at the recently completed World Hockey Championship. Beating out Chad Johnson for the No. 1 gig, Pickard posted a .938 save percentage and 1.49 GAA in the tourney, making 40 saves in the championship game against Sweden.

Pickard, a former second-round pick, carries a $1M cap hit and has shown well in the past, posting a .922 save percentage or better in his freshman and sophomore campaigns. He’s also only 24 years old, and seems like a legitimate candidate for Vegas.

Add it all up, and GM Joe Sakic has much to ponder this summer.

It feels like Sakic’s decision making hinges on Varlamov. The GM has repeatedly said a big reason for Colorado’s awful year was losing the Russian ‘tender to injury, and that improvement will come with Varlamov returning to health, and shouldering the starter’s workload.

That could be risky. Varlamov just turned 29 and has a history of chronic hip and groin problems. He’s also got two years left on a five-year, $29.5 million deal — one that carries a hefty $5.9M average annual cap hit.

Related: ‘There’s going to be a lot of turnover’ in Colorado

It’s ‘reasonable’ to expect Schultz and Hornqvist will play Game 7

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The Pittsburgh Penguins could have a couple of reinforcements for tomorrow’s seventh and deciding game against the Ottawa Senators at PPG Paints Arena.

Pens coach Mike Sullivan said this morning that it would be “reasonable” to expect the returns of defenseman Justin Schultz and forward Patric Hornqvist.

Schultz was injured early in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final and hasn’t played since. But he traveled with the team to Game 6, suggesting he was getting close to a return.

Hornqvist hasn’t played since Game 1, and he didn’t travel to Game 6. Instead, he stayed back in Pittsburgh to rehab, along with fellow injured teammates Chad Ruhwedel and Tom Kuhnhackl.

The Penguins lost last night by a score of 2-1, but they weren’t particularly upset with how they played.

“I thought we played a real good game,” said Sullivan. “I thought we dominated zone time. We had lots of chances. We didn’t score tonight. The puck didn’t go in the net, but if we continue to play the game that way, then I believe we’ll get the result.”

KHL contracts two teams for upcoming campaign

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Last week, KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko said the league’s optimal size was 24 teams.

On Wednesday, he got closer to achieving that goal.

The KHL is officially down from 29 to 27 teams, following today’s announcement that Metallurg Novokuznetsk and Medvescak Zagreb have been contracted.

“We have realized that revising the number of member clubs and optimizing their staffing structure will enable us to solve the problem of spending cuts and also stimulate the labor market,” Chernysheko said last week, per the league website. “At the moment, the highly skilled players are spread too thinly among the clubs.

“It follows that the quality of play will improve, and with it the entertainment value and commercial potential of the League.”

Novokuznetsk, located in Siberia, has been in the KHL since 2008-09. The club has never made the postseason and, last year, had just eight wins in 60 games.

Medvescak was the KHL’s lone Croatian-based club, having come over from the Austrian League in 2013. After making the playoffs in its inaugural campaign, Medvescak struggled in the following three and ran into financial crisis this season. From the IIHF:

Medvescak faced some well-documented financial problems and, after a fire sale of players in the closing weeks of the campaign, suited up just 14 players in its last games.

With the team heavily reliant on sponsorship to provide a sustainable budget, the decision to return to a league closer to home.

It’s unclear what the future has in store for Novokuznetsk, though reports suggest the club could move to the VHL, Russia’s second-tier professional league.

Report: Sabres interested in Pens director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton

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New Sabres GM Jason Botterill has been on the job for less than a month, but with the draft around the corner, he’s got to start filling some holes in his front office.

Botterill, who came over from Pittsburgh, is allowed to bring former Pens colleagues of his over to Buffalo, but only if they’re given promotions by the Sabres (no lateral moves).

According to a report by Chuck Gormley, one person who could move from Pittsburgh to Buffalo is Randy Sexton, who currently serves as the Penguins’ directer of amateur scouting.

Sexton would bring plenty of experience to the Sabres’ front office, as he’s been a general manager with both the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers.

Having someone with that kind of experience could be beneficial for a rookie GM like Botterill, so the move would make a lot of sense from that point of view.

Related:

Botterill has “no problem” with Lehner as No. 1

Botterill to use Pens’ NHL-AHL relationship as model for Sabres